“Do you believe in God?”
This inquiry throws you out of orbit. At two in the morning within a vacant Amtrack station parking lot, this is the last thing you expect to come from the mouth of a cop through your driver’s side window. Backlit by alternating Bomb Pop hues, this officer carries a divine presence in comparison to your vulnerable state.
You falter. “I’m sorry?”
“I just… if you do, maybe we could pray together.”
You stare at him. One beat passes. Two. This cannot be happening.
Moments ago, you’d been manifesting temporary intangibility in the safety of your own vehicle. Nobody visited the small-town train station this late at night. You’d kept the windows cracked to let the moon-kissed breeze soothe your swollen eyes. Solitude swallowed by darkness allowed your misery to play camouflage with its surroundings until sunrise. Out of all other self-destructive options within a suffocating household, running away to decompress seemed like the best feasible option.
Or so you thought.
You steal a glance at your screen for any missed notifications from your friends. Nothing. As instigators of this distress, their avoidance doesn’t faze you. The police intervention, however, comes as a surprise. This means that your friends had to stalk your location, bypass any necessary form of communication, and send the law on a mission to ambush you at your only happy place.
As intimidating as this encounter is on the receiving end, the officer facing you isn’t in his element either. You catch onto the subtle fidgeting, the fleeting eye-contact. Most nights, he is used to patrolling the streets for intoxicated drivers and illegal parking. Did his training offer any insight on how to handle emotional situations?
“How are you doing?” he tries.
Had your pulse not been climbing up your throat, you may have laughed a little at that.
I’m doing great, how about yourself? Fancy meeting you here on this fine evening. Say, are you a railfan too?
“I’m fine,” you blurt, swiping a hand across your leaking nostrils. “I’m heading home soon, though.”
Please don’t make me hold hands and pray. This is already embarrassing enough.
“Your friends are awfully worried about you.” With his flashlight, he inspects my empty cup holder for questionable substances. “They say you might step out onto the train tracks.”
Seriously? Step out on the tracks? Depression is a bitch, but you aren’t that bad off. But how do you convince somebody that you’re alright when rumors say you cannot be trusted?
“What—no. I wouldn’t do that,” you say. “I was just watching trains from my car.”
On a normal night, you’d like to dance beside the tracks as a blur of freight cars blew your hair back. It used to be a ritualistic pastime between you and your friends. Nobody could hear your shrieks and hollers during that stretch of exhilaration.
Returning alone didn’t carry the same thrill. Sure, you tried to disappear within memories that made you smile, but invisibility didn’t make you invincible.
The cop says, “You’re a college student, aren’t you? My daughter graduated from that same university about eight years ago. Said the coursework is real tough. But with a little positivity and prayer, she made it through just fine.”
On a scale of one to Jesus, how likely is it that this police officer doesn’t believe in mental illness? Did his daughter grow up hearing the words get over it and don’t worry, be happy? Was she wary of expressing herself around her parents? Did she bottle up her feelings until they festered within her? Until they oozed out her pores?
Silence forces your fatigued gaze to meet his. There’s something about his wrinkle-eyed expression that softens your judgement. It’s sympathy. Damn it. He does care.
Maybe this man will never understand this kind of hurt. Reciprocally, you don’t quite grasp the inexhaustible trust people put into their faith. This situation puts you at a stalemate, a kind of adrenaline-laced confusion that numbs you over.
Despite the humiliating circumstances though, his company actually is a nice distraction.
Your phone buzzes against your thigh, lighting up with frantic texts from your mother. Again, no direct communication from the friends spreading rumors about your safety. Had they cared about your well-being, they wouldn’t have ignored you whenever you asked for their support.
“I really should get going,” you say, concealing your panic with a yawn.
To your surprise, the officer clicks off his flashlight and shrugs.
“Well, alright. You be safe driving back home, okay?”
Patting your shoulder, he eases your door shut and ambles back to his own car.
That’s it? God forbid you actually were a danger to yourself.
Although his vehicle’s party lights aren’t on anymore, he waits to follow you out onto the highway. You grip the steering wheel with sweating palms. Through your open windows, your ears pick up a distant horn—the very thing you’ve been waiting on for hours. With a sigh, you pull out of your spot and catch the spectacle in your rearview mirror.
The road is void of drivers at this hour of the morning. Once the police car peels away on a separate exit, you turn your volume down to attempt a prayer. A prayer that you’ll be okay. That your friends will stop escalating situations behind your back. That you won’t encounter another small-town cop for at least the next ten years.
What’s the worst that can happen from indulging in this irony? At this point, you have nothing to lose.
Bethany Cutkomp is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. One day, she hopes to write YA novels and befriend the opossums under her porch. Her work appears in Mag 20/20, Split Rock Review, Heimat Review, oranges journal, and more. You can find her on social media at @bdcutkomp.